It was at Gethsemani where I first encountered the phrase, “school of love.” I was immediately drawn to it, but it would still be some time before I discovered it was the phrase Bernard of Clairvaux coined to describe his vision for a monastery. Coming to stand in the Cistercian tradition Bernard was instrumental in starting, the Abbey of Gethsemani continues the mission which the Cistercians began a thousand years ago.
But even if this rich history and heritage were not informing the idea of ” a school of love,” I would still be drawn to it. Following in the path of St. Paul’s more-excellent way of love, what better phrase could we choose to describe a church or any other Christian community? What better could we say to the world than, “Come in here and learn how to love”?
At first glance, a monastery seems so far removed from the way most of us live we can hardly imagine it to be a “school of love” in which we should enroll to learn how to love in the world we inhabit. But a less-reactive and more-responsive posture in our heart disposes us to learn things we cannot so easily learn when caught up in a world too taken by itself and too greatly consumed in freneticism, noise, and violence.
If we are willing to stop, look, and listen, places like Gethsemani have much to teach us. We can begin with the word ‘school.’ At the get-go, we discover that learning to love is a protracted experience, not a six-week study. We see that it is a progressive experience which takes us into increasing degrees of love. We move and grow in love. Learning to love is a journey.
Like a laboratory, the monastery reminds us that we learn to love by loving concretely, not abstractly. The monks are quick to tell you that they are thrown together with a group of people they did not originally know, choose, or perhaps even like. Learning to love always happens in reality and imperfection. That’s why folks who have a “pure church” mentality are always strangers to love.
Instead, we enter a ‘school’–an experience populated by anyone and everyone we meet. As happened in our public education journey, we find ourselves being assigned a desk that is surrounded by people we have never seen before, and our only option (short of arrogance, chaos, condescension, and even violence) is to find ways to get along. And so it always is in any “school of love.”